Empire Records

Instead of the authenticity this movie craved, Empire Records ends up feeling like more of an attempt to cash in on punk music, acid wash jeans, and teen angst than an homage to the actual culture it was emulating.

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The eponymous Empire Records store is being taken over by The Man– more specifically, the sterilized, corporate entity: Music Town. In an act of rebellion, and brash decision making, one of the store’s managers takes all the money in a cash register and gambles in Atlantic City in order to make enough money to save the store. Unfortunately,  quite the opposite happens and thousands of dollars are lost, leaving the crew in an even bigger predicament.

Resigned to their fate, the employees of Empire Records live as though that day is their last by having dance parties on the store’s floor, holding mini-funerals for depressed coworkers, and even befriending misguided teen that threatens to shoot up the store (all of these things actually happen). In the end, they decide to hold a huge concert to raise money and buy the store from the seedy, corporate owner. They succeed and all is well.

It’s difficult to summarize the film, only because, at times, it feels more like a prolonged music video than a bonafide film; the songs are great and are only undermined by spastic dancing and pointless vignettes. You need a 90s, record store fix, watch High Fidelity.

Matt: 1.75/5
Gabe: 2.00/5
Xan:  3.50/5

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March, 1998: The Newton Boys

Richard Linklater directs this surprisingly mundane look at the true-story of four brothers that robbed nearly 200 banks from 1919-1924 across North America. Unfortunately for Linklater, the brilliance that was shown in his other films like Dazed and Confused, Bernie, and Boyhood is completely absent from this observation of the Newton brothers.

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The film opens with Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey) returning from a four-year stint in prison for stealing cotton– it turns out that the eldest brother, Dock (Vincent D’Onofrio), actually stole the cotton, but brought Willis down with him. He returns home to his brothers Jess (Ethan Hawke) and Joe (Skeet Ulrich), only to leave shortly after.

He’s roped in to the bank-robbing business by a skittish and nerdy Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) and a seedy gangster named Slick. The first mission is hardly successful as Glasscock is injured, Willis barely escapes, and Slick is caught by the local sheriff. From there, Willis and Glasscock decide to team up with Jess, Joe, and Dock to rob nearly 200 banks over the course of five years.

In all of this, Willis falls in love with a beautiful, charming woman named Louise (Julianna Margulies) and they quickly move in together. While Willis is attempting to become a bonafide man in the booming oil business, his fortunes change and he is brought back into the vagabond lifestyle by mobsters in Chicago. This last job focuses on stealing nearly 3 million dollars from a postal train that carries money from town-to-town.

During this heist, Dock is mistakenly shot by Glasscock, which prompts the group to seek medical attention. The next day, nearly everyone is apprehended and interrogated by the feds. Willis is given a proposition: return all the money and rat-out the inside man who gave them the information on the train and receive a shortened sentence for him and his brothers. At first, Willis is hesitant, because he does have some honor. In the end, he decides the incentives are too enticing.

The Newton Boys is one of those films that does nothing right or wrong; it’s so completely mediocre that it’s frustrating because it can neither be despised, nor revered. It was forgotten after a disappointing bout at the box-office– making only 10.2 million dollars back off of a 27 million dollar budget.

Some solid performances from the main-ensemble and decent character arcs make an otherwise uninspiring look at a group of bank robbers bearable. In the end, a film about such an exciting topic should have yielded a much more exciting product. Because we only see a montage of bank robberies and not much strife or pursuit, there’s nothing to root for or worry about.

Matt: Watch once
Gabe: Watch once if you like Linklater

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February, 1998: Sphere

Like many book-to-movie adaptations, Sphere suffers from a severe lack of respect for the source material and an oversimplification of its content. Because many important nuances and plot points were omitted, the film is only a fraction of what it could have been.

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The movie begins when Dr. Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman), a respected psychologist, is selected to assist a group of plane wreck victims with their trauma — or so he thinks. Upon his arrival, he is informed that he was called upon to help a group of scientists board an alien spacecraft found 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. This is due to the fact that he wrote a paper for the Bush administration about how humans should react to meeting aliens. In his paper, he names three other scientists that could be helpful: Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), Elizabeth Halperin (Sharon Stone), and Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber). The only trouble is that he made up the paper itself to make rent.

When the scientists finally board the alien vessel, they become aware that future humans have already interacted with the ship; they also locate the eponymous sphere. Harry ventures inside and all hell breaks loose. From jelly fish attacks, to a giant squid ravaging their ship, the crew attempts to survive the wrath of an alien life form named Jerry, that lives inside the minds of the group themselves, it’s clear that the sphere is responsible.

Despite some solid performances from the main ensemble of Hoffman, Jackson, Stone, and Schreiber, the script and the overall cheap look of the ocean’s floor prove too much weight to overcome. If a movie is two and a half hours long, you hope that a majority is progressive and interesting. Unfortunately, with Sphere, you get backtracking and expository scenes that, sometimes, merely explain how a simple item works– ie: a two or three minute sequence about why the crew needs a necklace that will prevent their voices from being distorted.

Sphere feels long and, even then, it is missing some interesting content from the source material.

Matt: Don't watch
Gabe: Watch once if you like bad sci-fi

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January, 1998: Phantoms

Before Armageddon, before Dogma, before Changing Lanes, after… Goodwill Hunting? There was Phantoms. Why Ben Affleck took this inexplicable step backwards, I’ll never know; maybe he thought it would be good, maybe it was for the money, maybe he was already filming before Good Will Hunting was released.

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Phantoms is loosely based on a popular study from the early nineties: that flatworms were able to ingest other, ground-up flatworms and could inherit their memories and experiences. In this particular instance, they were able to solve a maze more quickly if they ate one of their kin. This script takes that hypothesis, adds some demons, and runs wild with it.

We open in a sleepy, winter town where two sisters, Lisa (Rose McGowan) and Jennifer (Joanna Going), plan to settle down for a while; mainly to get Lisa away from her abusive boyfriend in Los Angeles. What they find is an empty town and some putrefied, dead bodies.

When they try to find help, they run into some local law enforcement in Bryce (Ben Affleck) and Stu (Liev Schreiber). Shortly after, things go south and Stu is claimed by whatever has taken over the town. Timothy Flyte (Peter O’Toole) is recruited by the FBI to join in on the fun and explains that demons have been terrorizing the town and have been growing in strength for centuries because, when they consume people, sometimes entire armies, they learn what they fear and use that to claim more lives.

Naturally, there is a mysteriously helpful serum that Bryce uses to vanquish the monster once and for all, dispatching the threat for good.

Phantoms’ weaknesses are numerous and are equivalent, but not limited to: script, acting, sound design, and cinematography. It’s a flat movie with uninspiring performances and a coherent, but unimaginative plot, and many scenes will burst your ear drums if you aren’t careful. It’s hard to recommend even for some laughs with friends– there are much, much better bad movies for that.

Matt's rating: Don't watch
Gabe's rating: Watch once if you like this sort of thing

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Phantom of the Paradise

In what can only be likened to the tortured love-child of Phantom of the Opera and Faust, Phantom of the Paradise surprises with a shockingly good score and a rich, fun world.

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A starving artist, Winslow (Bill Finely), catches wind that his pop cantata about a disfigured musician searching for love has been stolen by a local music tycoon named Swan (Paul Williams) in order to open his new, world-class music venue, The Paradise. After confronting Swan, Winslow is framed for selling drugs and is sent to the notorious Sing Sing prison. During his stint in prison, Winslow’s teeth are removed, to prevent infection, and replaced with two rows of striking, silver implants.

Being forced to listen to canned, radio-versions of his music, Winslow breaks free and attempts to destroy Swan’s record company, Death Records. In a freak accident, his face is horribly mutilated by a vinyl press and he disappears.

At The Paradise, it becomes clear that Winslow, now the Phantom, is attempting to prevent his music from being destroyed by Swan. After a brief altercation, the Phantom signs a contract with Swan to finish his work and help launch The Paradise.

When auditions are held for the cantata, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a young woman with a marvelous voice, is cast in a titular role since Winslow believes she’s the only one that should sing it. Swan also abuses this conceit later as he replaces her with Beef (Gerrit Graham), a glam-rock superstar with a deep, gruff growl.

Pushed to the end of his rope, the Phantom destroys the venue and ruins The Paradise’s opening, voiding his contract with Swan and killing them both.

Unlike a film of a similar vein that was released at around the same time, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Phantom of the Paradise digs a bit deeper and comes out on top as a more complete film. By taking a closer look at what it truly means to love and sacrifices that must be made in the face of danger, the film actually has something to say.

The movie is just flat-out entertaining. With such a small budget, it’s a wonder that such a memorable world could be created at this time. Every performance is rock solid, from top to bottom, and the entire album should be saved on your Spotify account immediately.

Matt's rating: 4.5/5
Gabe's rating: 3.5/5
Roy's rating: 5/5
Rewind Cinema composite: 13/15

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December, 1980: Stir Crazy

With their stock on the rise, Stir Crazy is the second film that Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor wrote and starred in together during their hot streak in the 70s and 80s. While this isn’t the best film of the bunch, that title is reserved for Silver Streak, which was released shortly before this, Stir Crazy does some things well and some things not-so-well.

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The plot focuses on two friends, Skip Donahue (Gene Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Richard Pryor). Skip and Harry are both fired from their jobs, which prompts them to advertise for a local bank in woodpecker suits– their song and dance being a great encapsulation of Wilder and Pryor’s dynamic. After they go on break, two thieves break in, steal their outfits, and rob the bank. When Skip and Harry return, they are promptly arrested in a classic mix-up.

The duo is sentenced to 120 years in prison (only 30 of which will be fully served, assures their lawyer). Upon their arrival in prison, they quickly make friends and settle in after a bit of discourse. The warden reviews their case, but also makes Skip ride a mechanical bull because this prison is rivals with a coterminous prison that they square off with once a year in a bull-riding competition. The prisoners are enlisted against their will.

It turns out that Skip is a natural, so he is chosen, but resists just long enough to make a few demands: a bigger cell and that his posse will be his crew for the event. The competition serves as a front for an elaborate escape plan where Skip and Harry’s crew break them out of prison and they all go their separate ways. In the end, it turns out that their lawyer got them acquitted, so none of that ended up being necessary.

Stir Crazy is a great example of why Wilder and Pryor were so successful– this film’s gross was only third to Star Wars Episode V and 9 to 5 that year. When the two are together and are allowed to be themselves, they are electric. It’s even more impressive when you consider that most of their scenes together are improvised.

The film falls apart when the two are separated and the focus shifts from their hi-jinks to Skip’s love interest. With such a powerful duo, why would you make Pryor play second fiddle for nearly half the film? And why interject a meaningless love story an hour in? These are just a few of the questions we had and you’ll probably feel the same.

Matt's rating: 2.75/5
Gabe's rating: 2.25/5
Rewind Cinema composite: 5/10

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